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Full Interview: City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito


Melissa Mark-Viverito Council dais

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (photo: William Alatriste)


Gotham Gazette's Ben Max interviewed City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito on Thursday, August 25, 2016 at City Hall. Below is the audio of the interview, the first in a new Gotham Gazette podcast, Policymakers - find us on iTunes.

Below the audio is the full transcript of the interview. Let us know what you think: email Ben at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or find him and Gotham Gazette on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @GothamGazette.

Thursday, August 25, 2016, New York City Hall

Ben Max (BM): Speaker Mark-Viverito, thank you for joining me.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (MMV): Thank you.

BM: I wanted to first ask you about a couple of recent dust-ups of sorts, where you had a couple funny or interesting, not necessarily funny, but public moments. One is the Twitter exchange with the Department of Transportation. Tell me, tell us, when you reported something, you were tweeting, you’re active on Twitter, you wanted to bring something to the attention of a city agency, you didn’t get the response you wanted - so what went through your mind there?

MMV: Look, I can probably tell you how many times a day, whether in person or through phone calls, constituents call our offices with complaints they’ve filed to 311 that don’t get addressed, and that our goal, as an elected official, and that is what we’ve been entrusted to do, right, is to be able to facilitate and cut through the red tape of the bureaucracy, and that is our responsibility. It’s not like we’re asking for more and better attention than others, but that comes with the responsibility of being an elected official that passes the budget for the City of New York and that our responsibility is to interact on a daily basis with city agencies to facilitate projects on behalf of our consistents and our districts. So, if I’m directly, as the elected official, interacting with a city agency to say this is something that is a problem in my district - I’m not asking for a personal favor - I’m walking the streets of my district, a light is hanging loose, which could be a danger potentially, also, right by a public school, kids walk that every day with their families, and it was hanging precariously, and I’m saying, this is something that should be addressed, then I don’t expect a bureaucratic response, that’s the reality. So, I did it in a way - I do a lot of walking in my district, I like to take walks to different neighborhoods of the City of New York, I’ve been doing a lot of logging these days of miles and you can see it on my Instagram and Twitter, and I like to interact with the neighborhoods that we represent as a way of getting a feel for it. But through one of those walks, checking out different things in my district, that’s what I came across. So that was the reason that I decided to tweet about it - to say please be aware of this, please do something about it. So, you know, it got a little bit heavier than it needed to, I think, but I’m glad that it got addressed, and I’m glad that the Department of Transportation paid attention to it and that it got resolved.

BM: And you got a little bit of flack because one of your responses was ‘that’s not a response for an elected.’

MMV: Right. And maybe, obviously with the 140-character limitation on Twitter, sometimes maybe the tone, right, may be read in a different way. I think anybody who knows me and knows the way that I’ve carried myself, and that I carry myself, the last thing from my mind was entitlement. That’s not the approach and that was not the reason that I tweeted it. But as an elected official, on behalf of my constituents, we are asked and our responsibility is to interface with agencies and to get a quicker response and to cut through the red tape, and we do that every day very gladly for our constituents. So, it just may have been interpreted the wrong way, it definitely was not the intention.

BM: So someone manning one of those, any agency Twitter account sees an elected official bring something to their attention, you want it to be maybe a little bit more of a flag than a normal constituent.

MMV: Well I think the other issue here was, and that’s where we’ll probably do a hearing, is: how are complaints being logged from different city agencies. People use social media very aggressively these days. Other cities have been able to really incorporate that as a way of logging complaints. It seems like we may have some deficiencies in that. So that could be something that we really do a hearing on. We’ve talked about, how do we log complaints as a city, how do we address those complaints, how do they get resolved. So that’s more than anything, I think also part of the response that I handed out, right, is that I’m using a media, I’m logging a complaint, to me this was a way of logging a complaint, and the response was, ‘no, that’s not enough, you’ve got to go to 311 and get an official number, or however it is.

BM: Right. I do think that brought to people's’ attention that they don’t seem to be taking complaints through social media, which like you said could be an interesting topic to sort of bring people in about.

MMV: Right, and when it comes to New York, understanding that we’re at such a different scale than any other city. If you’ve got a city that’s 750,000 to a million people, it’s a little bit easier, maybe more agile, to get things done. But, we’re a large city, and understanding that sometimes some things may take a little longer to implement. But, because a lot of people do use their smartphones these days, for almost everything, should not the smartphone be a way also through either social media or other apps - I know that 311 has an app, we could talk about that, too, at the hearing. - but other ways that we can make sure that we’re addressing constituent concerns in a speedier way, a more expeditious way.

BM: So that hits on oversight, and I want to sort of come back to the Council’s role and your role in oversight in a minute. But the second thing was, you were sort of defending your decision on the Right to Know Act compromise, and you were saying just because a bill has a certain number of sponsors even if it’s most of the Council, doesn’t mean [snaps fingers] it gets passed.

MMV: Right. Because I mean there’s hearings that have to happen. Many times a bill as originally heard has to go through amendments. Things may be taken out, things may be added in. That’s part of negotiation or of compromise. So it’s not just there’s a lot of analysis and thought that goes into a bill, this is now something that’s going to hang over our heads as a city. So it’s not just a matter of saying ‘the magic number is 36, get it passed,’ there’s still a lot of legwork that has to go with it. And so that was really kind of the response, I mean we have to be very deliberative, we’re a legislative body, and we have to be really thoughtful about the things that we do and we have to take every opinion into account. I mean at least on the spectrum - people that are in favor, people that are opposed, people that are middle of the road. All those things weigh in to any decision that we make, and we have to hear those different points of view. And a lot of times, even I as a Council member, I would adjust based on information that I was getting that I hadn’t necessarily heard of. So it’s part of a process that sometimes with issues that may be a little bit more contentions or complicated, takes longer to get through and to sort through. So I just try to really - I take my responsibility very seriously, and I think all of us as legislators do, so that’s part of the process into any sort of legislation.

BM: So is it your job, would you say, as Speaker, to be the conduit sometimes between the administration and the members, where you have to say, ‘there’s other considerations we need to take in here,’ and you’d go to Council members, where there’s however many, 30 or so, who like the intent of a bill, so they’re signed on as sponsors, but that doesn’t mean they’ve analyzed every word of the legislation, and you need to be, sort of the leader of the ship, right, the captain of the ship, and you need to say to them, ‘I don’t know that we’ve looked at this carefully enough’ or ‘we have to take this feedback in from the administration,’ how does that work?

MMV: Look, I come into this position having been a Council member for eight years. And this was also part of the Speaker’s race, which I’ll get to in a minute. So you have a friend or a colleague that comes to you and says, ‘I need you to support my bill.’ And you may not have read every aspect of it, like you’re saying, the intent, ‘oh that sounds great, I know Robin, I’ve worked with her really well, I’m just going to sign on,’ right, and that’s a reality of the work that we do, where sometimes you’ll have an advocacy group that calls you and you’ve had a good working relationship and you sign on. But that’s where the hearings come in, right, and the deliberations, and hearing from other points of view. And then you may adjust - I know I adjusted many times when I was a Council member. So I understand that reality and so as Speaker I have that and I’m informed by that as well, and then when I spoke in the Speaker’s race, we made some reforms to really open up the body, and so the idea here is that it’s about being more thoughtful about bills you sign onto and how we move them forward. That’s part of it, and I’ve come with that understanding, which someone outside of the legislative body may not understand all those nuances. Part of the job is also getting and taking the criticism. Understanding that not everybody has all the information and maybe making a decision or judgement lacking the full context. And that’s part of it - you develop a thick skin, you’re able to move on, you do your work, you’ve got to govern, you can’t get too mired in that, and just figure out a way that we advance and make progress, which is at the end of the day what I feel I’m here to do. We want to move forward. Maybe for some people the pace may be slower than they would like, but my perspective or my philosophy is that if we’ve moved the gauge forward - 5, 10, 20, 50 percent - I feel we’ve made progress and I think that’s something I would be proud of.

BM: Have you had to be more moderate as the Speaker than you were or would be as a rank-and-file Council member?

MMV: I don’t think so. I believe I have to be more thoughtful and I have to be more balanced in being able to hear other perspectives and maybe take things a little bit more slowly or measured or try to figure that out. But I believe that what we’ve done, the work we’ve done is extremely progressive as a Council. We’ve taken on some issues that we’ve gotten a lot of national attention on; that we’ve really challenged, when it comes to immigration reform, criminal justice reform. I don’t think we get enough credit for the actual changes that we’ve been able to implement and how we’ve been able to move the agenda forward. So I think that I’m really proud of that, and understanding that as the leader of this legislative body, there’s more that I have to factor than just my personal point of view, or my own district’s point of view - I’ve got a city to also look at, other districts that may be a little bit more conservative than mine, other factors that play into it; that also we have to lead and govern making sure all those voices in some ways are being heard.

BM: So that’s the difference between a citywide responsibility and your district?

MMV: Yeah, and a more parochial, local perspective.

BM: You say you don’t think you’re necessarily getting enough credit. From who? Where is there not enough credit?

MMV: Well, I don’t think enough - that people when they talk about the criminal justice reform work that’s happened, they don’t really look at the breadth of what we’ve done, right - the bail reform work that we’ve done, the Criminal Justice Reform Act, and the way we look at summonses, and other things that we’ve taken into account or done that really is making a difference and will make a difference in people’s lives. And I’m really excited about that. I’m going to leave here with a record, I think, of real progress.

BM: Is that the press? Is that the activists? Who?

MMV: I think it’s a mixture of both. I would say that that’s the case. We do a good job, I think, of putting out there, and the press team has been great, really putting out there the great work that we do. How people interpret that or how people report on that is up to them. But, I think that we’ve done some really great work.

BM: So on one hand there’s a lot of criticism, you mentioned, right. On the other hand there’s sort of people not necessarily giving quite giving enough credit for what you’re doing as a reformer. So, how do you take that. You get hit from the left and the right, right? You get hit from the activists - there’s a lot of pushback right now on this Right to Know Act - there’s new letters being sent and comments from family members of people who’ve been killed by the NYPD, and to me, I see that and I say, ‘Wow, if this Speaker is moving the ball in several ways, but these are still the criticisms that are coming from the advocates and reformers outside of government,’ how does that sit with you - how do you respond to that criticism?

MMV: Listen, these families have gone through a horrific reality. Something that nobody wishes on anybody. Obviously there’s pain that never goes away, and those voices, they have the right to express themselves, and in some cases justice needs to be served. So, you take that, you listen to it, you interact, more than happy to engage with the family members. But it’s part of the deliberative process, it’s part of getting that feedback on anything we do, we’re always going to get people that may not agree exactly with it, but I’ve been very clear and anybody that knows me, I’m probably one of the least political people that you’ll meet, in the sense that I really do something, especially something as sensitive as this, something that I’ve worked so hard on and something that I’ve been involved in as a Council member, something that impacts my district directly, and that we hear a lot of it as well - it’s something that I believe in my heart is that the way we’ve approached it is the right way for now. And I’ve been very clear, that from a place where the NYPD indicated that these were ‘anti-cop’ bills to the point now that they are incorporating and putting forth elements of these bills, to the point where we’re going to be seeing it implemented on the ground - I want to see that play out, and legislation is not off the table, right, let’s see how it works out and let’s how it moves forward, and if we don’t feel progress enough has been made, then we can look at other alternatives. So, I’m very clear, I’m transparent about where I am, but I really believe that we have moved the ball forward in this case, and that we will see the results of that soon enough. They have time, they have to implement it, we can watch it, we can monitor it, we can have a hearing about it, see how it’s going, and then figure out the next steps after that.

BM: On the other side of things - criminal justice reform, a lot of the sort of workplace and workforce-related reform, some of the immigration reform - you get people whether it’s in The New York Post or just sort of people from the right, who, you know: ‘this is communist stuff’ and this is, ‘the city is going to hell’ - and this is aimed at you, this is aimed at the Mayor - so do you worry at all that you’re going too far? Do you worry that you’re infusing government too much into the private sector? What do you think of the sort of critique from the right that this is all a little too much?

MMV: In what ways, right? We’re two-and-a-half years in, things have been implemented and the city is not going to hell in a handbasket, right? Obviously, we’re not perfect, but, I think that with anything, what I tell people about legislation is: the same way you can implement it, the same way you can roll it back. You can put something in effect and being responsible, you monitor it, and if things are not going the way you want, you can always make adjustments to improve on legislation, or to figure out ways you maybe curtail it. So that’s something that is a reality, so nothing is static. I think that what we’ve seen, in terms of everything, the muni-ID that’s been implemented, all the criticisms, nothing negative has resulted out of that - if anything it has been beneficial to the 500,000, 600,000 families or individuals that have availed themselves to it; or you think about all the unaccompanied minors, and us doing that public-private partnership, now we have over 100 children that were fleeing horrific crime, having asylum, and potentially more. We’ve done a lot of great things. Now the Criminal Justice Reform Act, where we have potentially 10,000 individuals that will not have these interactions that will produce a permanent criminal record - I mean that’s substantial stuff, and again, it’s validating and embracing people and communities that have been marginalized for so long; it’s trying to correct systemic injustices that have existed for too long. And these are the steps that we can take as a city - there’s obviously changes that have to happen at the federal level, but there’s things that we can do as a city and we’re demonstrating that, and it produces better results for the city at the end of the day when everyone feels embraced, when everyone is validated, when people are able to come back to their communities and reintegrate positively and be able to get a job. So those are things that to me mean a lot, and I’m very happy about what we’ve accomplished and what we’re accomplishing, what we have yet to do, and I think we’re proving the naysayers wrong. No one got hit hardest than myself during the Speaker’s race, I took a lot of hits, everybody analyzes that race in terms of all the negative reporting that was done, saying that doomsday is coming if I was elected Speaker, and I think we’ve been proving the naysayers wrong.

BM: So two-and-a-half-or-so years into your speakershp, to the mayor’s term, you’ve obviously worked together on a lot of this because these things aren’t going to become law if they don’t go through the Council and get signed by him, so this is a pretty big, on the same page, joint effort about making a fairer city, more opportunity, you say correcting some of the inequities, so how do you see that right now? How has the work gone for two-and-a-half years? And are there specific things that you’re eyeing, that you say, ‘we haven’t gotten to this yet, but we have to move on this before I’m outta here’?

MMV: I think we’re heading in the right direction. We have to put things in perspective, right, we’re dealing with a city as large as New York - so, bureaucracy exists - and we’re dealing with, prior to this mayor coming in, of 20 years of Republican rule, in essence. Bloomberg wanted to play footsie and be in two parties and was a Democrat became a Republican, independent, whatever it was - but in essence, it was Republican policies, and you don’t switch and turn that ship around overnight, and even two-and-a-half years in, it’s still a short window within a larger period of time, so I think that you are seeing some changes, and you’re trying to rectify and create greater balance where there was great imbalance; and certain communities felt it more than others. I believe we’re headed in the right direction. I believe the philosophy and the point of view - the perspective - that this administration holds, that which I subscribe to - we may have different approaches on how to get there, right, but in essence, if you’re talk about creating more equality and opportunity for communities that have been on the receiving end of these systemic injustices, then it’s going to take time. But, with all these things being implemented, at some point it all starts gelling and you’ll start seeing the rewards of that down the line. I think that we’re on the right path. We can always analyze it and do hearings and look at the statistics and look at the numbers, but in some of these cases, we’ve already started to see some of the benefits in that.

BM: Being so on the same page, is the Council doing its oversight job well? There’s a lot of synergy - not just you, but the Council in general, most of the members, let’s say, with the mayor’s approach to things, and a lot of common ground. Has that subdued the Council’s oversight?

MMV: No, not at all. I think there’s been issues, clearly, where we’ve been at really strong odds. In the budget negotiations there have been things that were not originally a priority of the mayor that we have gotten him to reevaluate. Just because something is not a public fight doesn’t mean that we’re not doing our job, right. There’s hearings, and there’ve been some hearings that have been contentious on certain issues. There’s also a lot of negotiations and conversations that happen outside of even the hearing structure. There’s conversations we’re having every day with the administration on different issues that come up. We put in our point of view to get them to adjust; conversations that we have with the NYPD; so there’s a lot of work outside of just the oversight hearings themselves that has led to changes, and has led to looking at things in a different way. We have had very aggressive hearings on different issues - the housing hearings; we also talk about NYCHA oversight, there’s been a lot of aggressive work we’ve done on that front - and on other issues...Rivington, we’re going to have the deed restriction hearing coming up soon.

BM: That was popping to mind. I think we have about six different entities looking into that situation, with the DOI and the Comptroller’s reports already.

MMV: I mean it gets a little crazy, so we wanted to at least let some of that work get done and then now with that information in hand, we have a responsibility to look at it and figure out if the changes that the administration is proposing are enough, or if we could go further. I was at the steps of City Hall with the borough president [Gale Brewer] and with [City Council Member] Margaret Chin to talk about the idea of having some deed restriction changes, lifted or not, to go through ULURP. So, there’s things that we are proposing that may not be exactly where the administration is heading - hoping to get to the same end result, but again, the path may be different in how we get there.

BM: So on that, it’s fairly rare that you’re holding a press conference - you’re not a public sort of bomb-thrower when it comes, at least, to this administration. It seems like you have open dialogue, and as you just alluded to, the lines of communication are wide open so that’s happening in this building,in City Hall, on a very regular basis. What does that look like? Is that a lot of you saying to Joe [Taranto] and other aides, ‘you’ve gotta go talk to Emma [Wolfe]’? When do you pick up the phone or when do you walk over and knock on the mayor’s door?

MMV: Obviously now with the summer, it’s a little bit of a lull. But obviously leading up to the budget and after the budget - the mayor and I have consistent meetings; we meet once every two weeks, once every three weeks. There are times when I call; obviously you don’t try to do that every day, right? There’s times when you want to engage the mayor directly, at least on issues, but there’s a lot of staff-to-staff interaction. If there’s something that I’m not particularly happy about or I have concerns about, the Chief of Staff Ramon [Martinez] will interact with the admin and his counterpart on the other side - so there’s a lot of engagement every day, I mean every day - there’s a lot of engagement that happens. I don’t hesitate, if I need to, to call the mayor and he’s very responsive too. So there is that level of respect. I’m not the kind of person, generally, that is a bomb-thrower.

BM: Just with Donald Trump.

MMV: Even with Bloomberg, I try not to personalize the issues. The difference is about the issue, I don’t try to personalize it. If I have a problem on a policy front or a direction that something is going in then I will definitely make it known.

BM: Are there examples you can think of where you felt strongly enough to say, ‘I gotta just talk to the mayor about this right now’ - did that happen on the Uber thing, did that happen on horse carriages, did that happen at all during the MIH discussion?

MMV: I’m not going to get into the details of conversations and when they happened, but obviously I do not hesitate and he’s very open to basically accept my call on any issue, and I appreciate that, and obviously it’s the same on the other side. If he needs to speak to me about something, we try to figure it out.

BM: What kind of job is he doing? How do you evaluate how he’s doing as Mayor? You’re on the same page about a lot of things. I think at I would say at least a half-a-dozen press conferences he introduces you as his “partner in government,” right? I don’t know that you always use the same terminology, but he’s effusive, he seems to very much appreciate the working dynamic - but how do you think he’s doing? How would you evaluate him?

MMV: Bill and I were colleagues here in the Council, so our relationship goes back a long time, so the respect goes back very far as well. So the partnership is strong because of that. I think that, again, I believe that what he’s proposing to do and what he’s been doing - which I think in some cases he doesn’t get enough credit for, maybe they haven’t done the best job of communicating it, right, whatever it is - but I really think that when you talk about, obviously going back to the pre-K, which is critical; when you talk about the muni-ID, which he joined us on; you talk about paid sick leave and creating those opportunities for people in the workplace; you talk about the changes he’s trying to make our educational system more fair and equitable, is key - I mean, I don’t have children in the public school system, I don’t have children period - but having been under eight years of Bloomberg, they were so quick to close public schools. The lack of resources and investment in schools; giving principals the tools to be able to get schools that were struggling to succeed - there was no investment in that, it was either well you succeeded or you didn’t, you walked away from the school - it’s a whole different philosophy now, where you have a chancellor that gets it, because she’s been through the system. They’re providing support, they don’t want to walk away from communities. It’s just a different vision and I think that it just brings so much more opportunity for those families and the children that benefit of it. The expansion of the community school model, which I love - I went to Cincinnati, I saw the success of it, I see how it works. I really believe in the idea that the more barriers you break down for a child to succeed the more that child will succeed. So when you talk about a child that can’t see because they don’t have glass or they need some sort of additional support, maybe they’re hungry at home - the more barriers you break down, that’s what the community school model is about and they’ve invested heavily in that. So, there’s a lot.

The homelessness issue is obviously a big, big, big one that is not going to get resolved overnight. I think the lack of real attention and seriousness was not there before. So that’s going to take a while to really get out of that, but there’s been changes that have been implemented that really look more wholistically at the issue, and trying to meet people where they’re at, trying to deal with the issue of chronic homelessness differently than you do with the issue of a family that comes in looking for shelter temporarily. There’s more thought being given to it. The bringing back of a subsidy program, which is critically important. We have to challenge the private sector to accept those vouchers and to be more of a partner with us in allowing people an opportunity to have a permanent home. So there is work and challenges still there, but I believe that the way that they’re looking at the issue of homelessness and the crisis is very different and is much better, I believe.

BM: Different from when they did the shake-up on it? Or you’re saying different from the Bloomberg era?

MMV: Bloomberg in general. Again, what you’re talking about, a mayor that was there 12 years, and we had another eight years before that. When you’re introducing a whole new approach, it’s going to take a while, right, to kind of get that in place. And the struggle to make sure that nobody is left homeless and providing even temporary shelter when people need it is something that we struggle with and there are communities that reject it. There’s a struggle at the community level, where we need to find housing, emergency housing, where communities are pushing back against it. There’s a lot of work that goes into it. So, I think they’ve done some really good work in trying to have government be more sensible and sensitive, compassionate. We need that.

BM: You said so many things there. The general theme was a lot of things that you’re encouraged by (MMV: Yes) and a lot of the things that you agree with, right? (MMV: Yes) So August 25th, I think we are, does he deserve re-election, would you say?

MMV: Yes. He’s expressed he’s going to run for re-election and I support what he’s been doing.

BM: To go back to the homelessness for one second. They sort of seemed to acknowledge that they weren’t getting the job done reducing that, right? (MMV: Right) That they needed a shake-up. Is that something that is on your radar, because the numbers have sort of stabilized, but --

MMV: I know, it’s 59,000, the census, and to think an incredible number of those are families. It just continues to really reinforce the crisis of affordability in housing that we have in this city, and that this really is a priority for me. I’m working actively on getting that rezoning in my district so that we can create more affordable units. When you think that the majority - 28,000 of the 59,000 are kids; the majority of that 59,000 are families - it’s really troubling. But that really speaks to the crisis in affordability in this city, and that’s what we have to address.

BM: So your district and your members’ districts come into play there in a big way (MMV: Yes). You mentioned your rezoning, there’s also the rezonings elsewhere. You mentioned sitings of shelters. So, is it your belief right now that people need to be able to say, ‘you know, these people have to go somewhere, if the administration needs to site a shelter, you’ve got to work with them’?

MMV: Look, I believe the Fair Share reality needs to be really looked at. I think there needs to be more equity in the way that services are distributed. There are literally some districts that have no shelters in them. You look at one like mine, that we have probably over 2,000, 3,000 beds. So the issue of equity comes into the siting of services as well. And that’s a real challenge. When we’ve talked about the conversation about closing Rikers, of bringing services more locally to neighborhoods, because the people at Rikers are from our neighborhoods. There’s a resistance to that as well. But, that’s the challenge that we have to put forward, to every community - that we all have a responsibility, right, to each other, and to making this city thrive and more equitable. And even about the conversation about the desegregation of public schools - what was happening on the Upper West Side, what was happening in Brooklyn - it gets to be a sensitive topic.

BM: You mostly have seemed to stay out of those local flare-ups and local concerns, or is that not right? Whether it’s a community that doesn’t have a shelter being more receptive to one or it’s the school desegregation on the Upper West Side, is that something you largely think is sort of not for you to weigh in on in a strong way?

MMV: I haven’t weighed in on those. On the issue of the siting of homeless shelters, we’ve actually had Democratic conferences with the commissioner of DHS at the time and we’ve talked about these things. We’ve brought the conversation locally to members and said, ‘you know we have a real crisis here and we have to really address this,’ and there may be some districts that push back against but that we really should be welcoming of it. And some members that are having pushback in their neighborhoods but are willing to push forward - I think Danny Dromm is an example of one; I think Daneek Miller was saying he was navigating those waters and he was getting some pushback, but he understood the importance of it. Sometimes I’ve had that in my district, too - initially there may be some resistance, but if it’s the right thing to do you have to come and engage your constituents and explain why you believe this is the right thing to do even though they may be opposed to it. And I have found that when you really engage in that conversation and take the time to really explain the process of your thinking and why, even if people don’t agree with you they’ll respect that, and you can work with your constituents and navigate through that. But it’s been a challenge, and on the issue of homelessness we’ve had this conversation at the local level with members, and pushing them and saying, ‘look we’ve got to do something about this.’ Because there’s some conversation happening now where some members are really pushing back.

BM: And you mentioned Fair Share, that’s something you brought up in your State of the City, your most recent, is that an upcoming priority?

MMV: Yeah, we’ve been doing some thinking internally, we’ve been analyzing this and figuring out what are the things we do (Ben: to update the Fair Share law?) Right. Some of that is dictated by the State, but we’ve got to figure out what are the things we can do as a city, and we have the authority to do to create some more equity. So we think that there’s some things - hopefully, we’ll be rolling something out soon, with some ideas, or a policy paper or something.

BM: You mentioned closing Rikers. Is that - I know you’re waiting on your commission, I know Judge LIppman is working on that - but is that something that you really’d like to have a plan in place before your term is up?

MMV: Obviously understanding it’s going to take a long time to get there, but I would like to, yes, have a blueprint that really has us kind of disinvest from what I think is already an outmoded way of looking at criminal justice, right, and again, these are people awaiting trial, they’re not guilty as of yet. So, sometimes people are unfortunately waiting longer than they should for those trial dates, and are sitting in Rikers. But the issue of bringing those individuals back to their neighborhoods, and keeping them somehow connected - to their families, to additional services - will have them reintegrate more successfully. I think that’s important, I think that’s in our best interest as a city, it’s more cost-effective. If we’re writing people off, there are societal consequences to that. We have to look at it from that perspective and humanize the issue a little bit, and that is the work that we have to do - to engage, it’s going to take a lot of local engagement to get to that point. But that commission that’s been convened is very committed. They all believe that there is a lot that we need to do. So I really look forward to it. At least before my next State of the City, we’ll have some recommendations on ideas that could be implemented.

BM: And is that something you wait on more from them [the commission] before you’re having more conversations with the administration; because he--

MMV: They’re part of the conversation, too. They’re not totally; they’re part of the panel, if I’m not mistaken, at least representatives. We sit in on the meetings, we’re not on the commission itself, but we do have people from the Council listening to the deliberations. But yeah, there’s a lot of work that’s going on and they’re [the administration] not removed from that. Hopefully we could arrive at a point of agreement; there’s a number of disagreements on that issue.

BM: The mayor seemed to sort of warm slightly to it after his initial pushback, but you know, my estimation, looking at the calendar is: your term calendar, his re-election are gonna sort of collide (MMV: laughter) in a way that might make it challenging, right, for him. To me, if he’s gonna get on board with a plan to close Rikers, it wouldn’t happen until his second term, when he doesn’t have to worry about a re-election.

MMV: Right. And maybe even longer. That’s not an easy thing to do. And obviously it has to be incrementally, there have to be steps taken.

BM: Long-term plan, sure.

MMV: Right. There’s been different things that we’ve been looking at. No, but I’m excited, this is the legacy stuff. I’m going to be gone at the end of 2017 and there’s stuff that I want to leave in place, that I want to continue to have its impact, and that will have helped make this city more fair and just. And that’s really what I hope to do.

BM: Alright, so let’s talk about that for a minute - unless you’re not going to say anything different than what you’ve said before.

MMV: I’m not going to say anything different. (laughter)

BM: OK, so how about this: I’ll throw a few things at you and you tell me your reaction to them, how they sound to you.

MMV: Sure.

BM: One is you leave office after 2017 and you go back into labor organizing. Is that interesting to you? Is that something that’s on your--

MMV: No, that’s not on my radar. I think with the experience I’ve gained - obviously I value the work that our unions do each and every day - but in terms of the experience I’ve gained as a Council member, now as Speaker, I definitely want to continue to be influential in city politics. Meaning policy changes, conversations to that end. And figure out what that is - what is the right mix, what would the right role be, maybe it’s creating a role for myself, I have to think about it. Going into the philanthropic sector; whatever it is - you don’t know what life has in store. So, I’m not there yet, but obviously the people that are really important to me, and that are my mentors, that have kept me grounded, and give me guidance - I start throwing ideas about, look I’ve gotta start thinking about this. What would be the ideal role for me or situation for me. So I’m thinking about it - not spending too much time yet, but I’m starting to think about it.

BM: So that means no Puerto Rico. You said stay involved in city politics.

MMV: Well. You know, I don’t close doors. Again, three months from now you don’t know what opportunities may emerge, or months from now. I do feel very strongly that I want to finish my term. I know people keep throwing out there different ideas for what may be in store for me.

BM: Well, I’m getting to the big question about the Clinton administration.

MMV: Well I feel really strongly that with the level of influence that I have with this position that I can really help my district out, which is really, really dear and important to me. I have to figure out the best way that I can really leverage any support that I can provide to bring more to the district. So that’s important to me. But again, you don’t know what can emerge. Those are things that you have to think about and evaluate as they’re presented to you. That’s why I don’t try to be very fixated on any one point of view. I leave things open.

BM: It’s still a ways out.

MMV: It is.

BM: With the work you’ve been doing with the Clinton campaign, obviously you can’t blame people for some speculation, right?

MMV: Right. But, what I will challenge is the idea that the only reasons I’m doing this is because I’m trying to leverage a position, which some people may have that point of thinking. That was never it. Again, if people know me and know who I am, I really support Hillary because I believe in her and I believe in what she will do for this country and what she can do for our city and what she can do for communities like the one I represent. And the issue of Puerto Rico is very, very much a priority for me personally, so I’m interested in having a President that is going to be a partner with the island and that is going to really make that a priority to figure out how do we help get Puerto Rico out of its situation. So, there’s some things there in terms of reasons why, beyond my personal self-interest. And I think that that’s one of the things I would push back on, when I hear that ‘oh yeah, she’s only doing this because...,’ right. Again, people that know me know that’s not who I am.

BM: Let me finish on one more thing here. Do you pay attention to poll numbers? Do you look at them? When a Quinnipiac poll comes out that includes you in something, is that something that you--

MMV: I mean, because they come out - Eric [Koch] will tell me, ‘oh the polls came out,’ but I don’t really pay attention to that.

BM: So the most recent Quinnipiac poll asks about your approval rating - 29% of New Yorkers approve, 23% disapprove, 48% don’t know or didn’t answer. Why do you think - Speaker of the City Council - that don’t know number, two-and-a-half years in - I assume, I didn’t look back, but I assume most of the time, a lot of New Yorkers polled just aren’t familiar enough with the Speaker of the City Council - why is that? What do you think?

MMV: I don’t know. I mean, look, statistics, surveys like this: who is being evaluated, who are they, are these consistent voters, not consistent voters, people that are, I don’t know who they sample in these things actually. But, some people are not engaged. We have numbers of people that don’t go out and vote and the numbers are high, unfortunately. And there is more that we need to do as a society to really cultivate and engage people more. That’s why I believe in participatory governance, because I believe it’s a path for getting people more invested in their community, more engaged. And we’ve seen in the small examples of when we’ve done it at a local level that the people that engage in those processes are ones that are typically not the average voters. So, we have more to do to encourage: same-day voter registration, extended voting hours, there’s things which we have to do, which the state has a lot more of a role in that. But, it’s a sad reality. So again, I’m not sure if these are active voters--

BM: Yeah, I think it’s polls of voters, but I think part of it is that even people who pay attention who vote don’t pay that close attention to city government.

MMV: Right, and that’s why one of the things that we’ve done is, in looking at some of the tools we have available, is trying to figure out how do we make the Council more accessible to those that we represent. Creating more opportunities for people to engage through apps, sending us tweets, at hearings, and asking questions, or having the website be a little bit more accessible, more engaging, trying to take some hearings, we’ve done more of that than when I was a Council member, outside of the Council. And trying to figure out expanding participatory budgeting, creating opportunities for people to really get to know who we are. And I think we have a long ways to go, not only us, but everybody, but I’m still shocked every day, when I go to neighborhoods, way outside of mine, people recognize me and the work that is going on. Again, I don’t know about the polls.

BM: Well, thank you for the time.

MMV: When are you going to come to the district?

BM: I'm going to come, we'll walk the district.

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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